I had a bootleg concert tape in which Steve Earle spoke between songs about his high-school hobby of “turning cowboys onto LSD.” Of one football-playing friend, in paraphrase: We‘d lie on the hood of my car looking up at the sky and he‘d say, “Did you see that??“ And I‘d tell him, “No, man, that‘s your hallucination.” A key theme of the monologue was that these were friends who were only comfortable hanging out with Earle on the sly. They took care not to be seen palling around with him. High school hierarchies.
I find myself thinking of the story as I continue to mull a passage from Tim O’Neil’s post on 1990s superhero comics I linked early in the week. The gist:
If you’re of a certain age and have never had the kind of “break” in comic reading that a lot of people usually doyou know, the old, “I discovered girls / college / pot and comics went by the wayside”in other words, if you’re a lifer, your relationship with comics is probably pretty complicated. Comics can be like a drug. They say addicts get stuck at the level of emotional maturity they were when they first began to use. That is definitely true for comics fans, and learning to outgrow what can be a pretty crippling, albeit comforting “crutch” can be really, really traumatic.
I don’t think there’s no truth in that. (See also, “Comics Made Me Fat“, by Tom Spurgeon.) While there’s no question Tim’s portrait offers a facile causality, I think it would be equally glib to say the dynamic runs purely the other way, that comics are simply the refuge in which that some people respite from preexisting body issues or social anxieties or health problems. I think there’s a lot of that, just as there’s some evidence that a fair amount of pleasure-drug addiction constitutes an instinctive, if often counterproductive, self-medication for depression or chronic physical pain. I’ve been to a mall, and there’s an awful lot of fat people out there, and according to the circulation reports, hardly any comics readers. But people can deform themselves by clinging too firmly to crutches, yes, even if the crutch started out as necessary or at least useful.
But what I got interested in, pondering all this, was the kind of Oort Cloud of fandom: the closet cases; the furtive readers and the vocally anti-nerd nerds.
There’s a roleplaying game site called Story Games, for instance, where the question of how to “de-geek the hobby” is a recurring theme. What I notice is that the most anxious seekers after de-geekification tend to be, at least in their internet personae, utter assholes. I’d even argue that they are assholes in the same characteristically fannish ways (see your favorite geek fallacy or hierarchy or internet troll checklists) as they people they’d like to get shut of.
But they do love them some roleplaying games. They really do. And on the comics side, what I remember are the guys in high school and college and the Years of Group Houses who would never be caught dead buying a comic or going into a specialty shop, BUTthey were always happy to read yours. In fact, they would ask you if the new issue of such-and-such was out yet. They liked the comics just fine. In fact, they liked them a lot. But because they weren’t actually paying for them, it was understood that they were somehow better, akin to the attitude toward certain kinds of homosexual encounters in various cultures. Like Earle’s secret space cowboys, they were on the downlow. Or not even on the downlow: in our fraternity, you could be seen reading comics so long as it was known they were someone else’s comics with little social taint. Often I resented these guys. First off, I was shelling out the money, dammit. Second, somehow I was suffering a social stigma for providing the entertainment these guys were as happy to partake in as I was. And third, it bugged me that I wanted to say, “Get your own damn comics,” but didn’t have the guts.
My point is, I hated these guys. (Sort of.) My question is, was that so wrong?